Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Come On, Get Happy! (And Get Feedback)

A bunch of really cool people are going to help you polish your writing.  So, yes indeedy, it's time to Come On, Get Happy!

The following are guidelines some very smart, extremely talented people in a group called the AWG helped me develop during my time as a member.  So, since they're still pretty pertinent, they're going to be our ground rules for our upcoming critique group.  (If you'd like to borrow them for your group, feel free - just remember to give the credit to the AWG.)

Feedback Guidelines
The following guidelines are given:
1) So that the maximum number of writers can be productively accommodated at each session, and
2) Most importantly, to ensure that the sessions themselves are emotionally safe places for expression, both for writers and for critics.

When Offering Feedback:
As a writer taking a turn as a critic, please keep this in mind as you offer your suggestions.

All writers are vulnerable when it comes to criticism about our work, regardless of how self-assured and confident we may appear. In everything we write, we reveal our personalities, hopes, fears, traits, longings, and personal history. While feedback is essential if we want to sell our work, it is also a great act of daring and trust to reveal these very intimate things before others.

photo by Graur Codrin
at FreeDigitalImages

  • Write down your name on the pages, so that if the writer has questions about a comment (or can’t read your handwriting!) he knows who to ask.
  • Jot down your thoughts and ideas as the material is read, so you remember your suggestions when the feedback session begins.
  • Take turns commenting. Listen and participate at the appropriate moments. If three people talk over one another, the writer can't hear and take notes through the noise.
  • Organize your thoughts before speaking. Be concise and to the point. Redundant comments and babble use up valuable time.
  • Avoid revising the entire story. The writer isn’t looking for a collaborator.
  • Don’t confuse the writer with his characters or subject matter. For example, because an author writes a story about child molestation does not mean that she herself is a child molester, or was a victim of one. We all want the freedom to bring in offensive or controversial material so we can get feedback, without being judged by our subject matter. (This includes religious or political material.)  If you have "hot-button" personal issues from which it is impossible to distance yourself and be objective, don’t offer feedback on that particular work. A personal attack on a writer is inappropriate in any form, whether it is verbal or written on the manuscript pages.
  • Offer feedback about the work, not the message. Whether the viewpoints expressed by the writer are something we personally find offensive, unappealing, or unbelievably stupid is not the point. Our job is help the writer articulate his ideas clearly and with good literary style.
  • It’s fine to mention a book, or movie, similar in tone or storyline, that might benefit the author to review. Don’t drone on and on about the entire history of cinema or classic literature. Better yet, simply write down your recommendations as notes on the writer’s pages.  She will need the correct spelling anyway.
  • Don't make vague negative comments. "I hate stories about boys and their dogs," is not helpful. Consider the fix before offering a comment, or at least pinpoint the problem (and try to be diplomatic!) "This story is well-written, but I feel like I'm missing an element here that would separate it from the many other stories about boys and their dogs I've read in the past."
  • Praise the author’s strengths. Make positive comments if you truly liked the material, even if you have no suggestions for change. "Stories about boys and their dogs have been done a million times, but your story was still very fresh and interesting."
  • It is not necessary to offer an opinion on every piece of work presented.  (In other words, STFU once in a while!)
    Image via Ambro at FreeDigitalImages
When Presenting Your Work:
Make sure you have read through the formatting guidelines and your material is ready for review. This means pages numbered, double-spaced if fiction, proper screenplay formatting, collated, stapled or clipped, screenplay reading parts highlighted, circled, or underlined, enough copies for the expected number of attendees, etc.

We all are guilty sometimes of procrastinating, rewriting our material, and waiting to photocopy it till the last possible second. However, finishing up your stapling, collating, or other preparations while the group is ongoing is extremely rude and disrespectful to the other members of the group. You cannot expect other writers to be good sports about your lack of concentration on their projects, then in turn give your work their full and complete attention. If your work isn’t ready, it’s not ready. Learn to plan ahead and have your pages fully prepared before you walk in the door, or hold them till the next session.
  • When presenting the latest chapter in your novel in progress, the second or third part of your long short story, or the middle section of your screenplay, include two short paragraphs summarizing 1) an overview of the work as a whole, the genre and what you are trying to achieve, and 2) what went immediately before this section. You don't want the time spent explaining the set-up to take more time than actually reading the work!
  • Take notes. You won't remember every comment, so write everything down and decide what advice is worth taking later on.
  • Be patient while waiting your turn, and don't pout if time does not allow for your piece to be read. Our feedback sessions focus on full and comprehensive comments for each piece presented, rather than a quick slap-dash job on all material brought. While it can be hard to sit though someone else's dull piece when you're eager for feedback, you will appreciate the courtesy and attention when it is your turn. The moderators will make every effort to keep things moving and to ensure that everyone gets read in fair order.
  • Don’t take feedback personally. Remember, you are not your work! Sometimes, people will not like or understand either your characters, or the story you have written - this does not mean they do not like you, only that, in those people’s opinion, this particular piece of work falls short in some ways.
  • Do not defend, do not explain. Listen attentively, and for the most part silently, unless the critic asks you a direct question. What you intended in your head when you wrote, and what resulted on the page may be two different things. If you defend your work, you may miss valuable alternatives and solutions for improving it.
  • Respect the person giving feedback. We are all good people doing our best to help. Some in the group are learning how to give feedback, so keep this in mind. Even if a comment is a little rough, remind yourself the person is doing his best. Avoid heavy sighs, eye rolling or storming out of the room while the critic is speaking. We hope none of these will happen often at our feedback sessions, but hey, anyone can have a weak moment.
Thanks for playing... and hope to see you at a critique group, near me, soon!

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